COVID pandemic and its impact
Residents of Khori Gaon mostly worked in informal jobs like driving, construction, factory jobs and domestic help. Many of them were also daily wage labourers. Informal workers were the worst hit by the pandemic. Their wages were either reduced or entirely stopped, driving a huge number of people into greater poverty. Many had lost their employment as a result of the government’s extended lockdown without prior notice and covid restrictions at workplaces. The closing of state borders had an immediate impact because the majority of people worked in Delhi, Gurgaon, and Noida and were unable to commute. The majority of them also had no savings to offset the health and economic difficulties caused by COVID.
Since many residents did not have identity proof, obtaining relief provided by the state was almost impossible. Those with Delhi identity cards were ineligible for the assistance provided by the Haryana government. The Haryana government distributed distress ration tokens to people who did not have ration cards; however, this assistance did not reach most of the Khori Gaon inhabitants. Similarly, they were unable to access the state’s financial assistance announced for informal workers due to language barriers in filling out the forms and since they could not get the documents notarised during the pandemic.
Most COVID-19 cases in Khori Gaon went unreported and untreated during this first wave. Access to hospitals was restricted owing to transportation issues, heavy costs, and a shortage of hospital beds. The second wave was catastrophic. Residents were left to fend for themselves while the entire nation battled to deal with growing numbers and overcrowded hospitals. A small number of people were able to get oxygen cylinders from private dealers; however, many were duped into purchasing half-empty cylinders. Many people have died as a result of the 2021 wave. As many families lost sole earning members, women struggled and still struggle to feed their children. Residents also have also found it difficult to arrange for vehicles to take dead family members for burial or cremation, often spending an entire day with the bodies.
The court’s eviction and demolition orders need to be understood within this context of the socio-economic inequalities and the uneven impact of the pandemic faced by Khori Gaon’s residents. On March 13 2020, an eviction notice was given to the residents, giving them seven days to vacate. During this time, India was witnessing a steady rise in COVID-19 numbers. The residents tried to submit their grievances to the government; however, due to the closure of government offices, they were not able to submit the documents in time.
Eventually, a nationwide lockdown was imposed on March 24, 2020, and the demolition did not occur. However, on September 14, 2020, as many as 1,700 houses were demolished. This period was the peak of COVID-19 during the first wave. On this day, India saw 92,071 new COVID-19 cases.
On February 1, 2021, a letter was sent from the Khori Gaon Residents Welfare Association to the Faridabad government, appealing to the state authorities that a survey be conducted and residents be rehabilitated as per state policy. However, no dialogue was initiated with the residents; instead, on April 2, 2021, 300 houses were demolished without prior notice, the same day when 81,466 new COVID-19 cases were reported in the country. The recent demolition notice was given on June 7 for June 9, when nationwide COVID-19 cases were still high at 92,596.
Implementation of June 7th Supreme Court Orders
The Supreme Court’s latest orders have been used as a weapon against the entire basti that has been legally fighting in courts since 2010.
An order was issued by the Deputy Commissioner of Faridabad, stating that the process of eviction would start on June 9, 2021 at 6:00 am. Such notices were put up in few places in Khori Gaon. The Deputy Commissioner of Faridabad had also given instructions to Deputy Divisional Officer Badkhal, Joint Commissioner NIT Range Faridabad, Secretary Municipal Corporation Faridabad. A march past was carried on by the police in the settlement, asking people to evacuate immediately.
The SC orders caused a lot of panic among the residents and they began to organise meetings in the basti and came out to protest peacefully with activists non violently. But the police imposed section 144 to prevent these meetings and stop any form of mobilising. Many residents and activists were arrested by the police. The entire basti was barricaded by the police because of which no vegetable vendors, water tankers or any other service could reach them. Electricity connections to the area were cut off and the basti, which is at the foothills of the Aravallis and has an undulating terrain because it was a mining area, was enveloped in darkness at night. These were the hottest and most humid days of the season and the lack of electricity and water affected young children and old people’s health. Mobile towers near the area were removed because the administration felt that residents were communicating with activists and the media about their condition. Without mobile connectivity and electricity, the education of students who were all attending online classes came to a complete halt. Their futures are already seriously compromised.
During these days, the basti residents faced threats from the police everyday. The state administration also made some announcements that the area will be evicted and the residents were advised to leave with their belongings. From time to time, bulldozers were stationed outside the basti in large numbers to scare the residents. Officials also undertook small-scale demolitions on foot. But in the absence of any announcement of a rehabilitation plan in these announcements, the residents were confused and clueless about where they were supposed to go. Some residents even went looking for rentals in nearby areas and came back despondent because they found very few accommodations available during covid and the rents were simply unaffordable for them. News reports mentioned that close to 7 residents had committed suicides as they felt helpless, and an elderly person had lost his life without access to water.
A week after the SC orders of July 7, the CM of the state, ML Khattar, stated at a press conference that those residents with Haryana voter IDs would be given housing in the EWS flats built by the state government. But this was not elaborated by any state agency to the residents of Khori Gaon and so the residents kept waiting for future announcements. Several resident groups had also approached various political and government officials to clarify about the process of evictions and rehabilitation. But there was no such clarification.
On July 13, a press conference was held by the Municipal Corporation of Faridabad, where a rehabilitation scheme was announced with conditions for eligibility. Less than 24 hours after the rehabilitation press conference, on July 14, the state agencies and the Police began the most brutal form of demolitions in Khori Gaon. This was also the day the monsoon reached these parts. From 8.00 am onward, a heavy deployment of police and officials was present at Khori Gaon and started demolishing the houses. Police used drones to locate where residents had gathered and used force to disperse them. When the residents resisted demolitions, they were mercilessly beaten. In some cases, women were dragged by their hair when they refused to move from their homes. Men were hit and pushed against walls (annx :see video footage at https://twitter.com/leenadhankhar/status/1415616572123537408).
More than 300 houses were demolished by the end of July 14, and the residents who were rendered homeless spent the night exposed to the weather conditions without a roof. No alternative housing or even a temporary transit camp was not created for them. Due to the police blockades and section 144, no aid could be distributed to them the first night. The next day, on July 15, when the residents tried blocking the entry and exit points of the basti, police resorted to lathi-charge to disperse the crowd and, in the process, injured more than 10 people; many of them were women. According to estimates by residents and journalists, around 600 houses were destroyed by evening. July 16, was one of the worst days as close to 1500 houses were destroyed. The debris from the demolition drive was so much that the next day, July 17, was spent by the police collecting it and removing it from their path so that they could continue with the demolitions the next day.
While the lack of any temporary accommodation has been difficult for everyone, it has been particularly severe for women, children and the elderly. Many of the residents have existing health ailments, and some are disabled. A huge number of residents are single mothers with children. Residents whose houses have not yet been destroyed are providing shelter to some families, but since the houses in bastis are generally extremely small, many have not managed to find any shelter. Most of the residents have no savings due to the long pandemic, loss of jobs, and extended lockdowns. Since the demolition drive also destroyed most of their belongings, they also do not have any provisions for cooking. As a result, a lot of them have been staying hungry for the last few days.
The police made arrangements for food on July 15; however, the location of the food distribution centre was far, and most residents could not reach the place, especially those with mobility issues (annx: see video testimony). NGOs stepped in on July 17, the only day the police did not conduct any demolition; however water and shelter still remained an issue. On July 18, the situation went from bad to worse. Demolitions started from morning 10 am, and the police encircled the entire basti, thereby restricting movement inside and outside. Some of the volunteers and residents assisting them in distributing food were also stopped and got trapped in the police blockade for a few hours.
Throughout the last month, the police’s behaviour towards the residents has been increasingly aggressive and inhuman- using excessive force and causing grievous injuries. They have continuously threatened and beaten them and often barged into their houses without asking for permission. Police have also occupied the beds and sitting places within their small rooms to take refuge from the heat and rain, while the scared residents either left the rooms or huddled in a corner. The weather in the dry hills of Khori Gaon is scorching, and the chances of heat strokes are very high because of the rising temperature. The police have taken breaks for lunch, water and tea during the demolitions. But for the residents, the bodily torture and the fear of losing their homes has been relentless.
(For testimonies of women residents pls see video recording of a public hearing on Khori Gaon on https://m.facebook.com/NAPMindia/ The residents speak from 1:11:28 to 1:53:33)
Several reporters have been covering the issue of Khori Gaon evictions since the June 7 SC order. Some of them have visited the area and conducted extensive interviews with residents on video and these have been published. However, when the demolitions started and reporters reached the location, the police adopted violent tactics to stop them from recording the demolitions and speaking to the residents. The twitter timelines of some of the reporters who consistently covered the Khori Gaon issue gives information about the violent behaviour of the police against the media.
The human rights violations were also highlighted by the UN Special Rapporteurs who said that, “We appeal to the Indian government to respect its own laws and its own goal of eliminating homelessness by 2022 and to spare homes of 1,00,000 people who mostly come from minority and marginalised communities. It is particularly important that residents be kept safe during the pandemic.” They further added, “We call on India to urgently review its plans for razing Khori Gaon and to consider regularising the settlement so as not to leave anyone homeless. No one should be forcibly evicted without adequate and timely compensation and redress ……… “The role of the Supreme Court is to uphold the laws and to interpret them in light of internationally-recognized human rights standards, not to undermine them.”
As per the scheme proposed by the Haryana government for the rehabilitation of Khori Gaon, only those residents area eligible for allotment of EWS whose annual income is up to Rs 3 lakh and if any adult earning member/head of the family either possesses a voter id card or any identity card issued by the Haryana state or has an electricity bill. However, the proposed EWS flats are not ready, and no assurance was given when they will be. The government proposed to provide eligible residents a meagre amount of Rs 2000/month for 6 months to find accommodation until these flats were ready. In order to book the flats worth Rs 3,77,300, that are still not ready to move-in, resident have to pay a deposit of Rs 17,000 within 15 days of the allotment, and the rest would be collected as instalments of Rs 2,500/month for 15 years after that.
One of the most complex issues, in this case, is the basti’s location at the Delhi and Haryana border. Most of the residents in Khori Gaon do not have identity cards from Haryana; instead, they have documents and identity proofs from Delhi. Similarly, since the Haryana government did not provide electricity, the majority of the houses draw electricity from Delhi though through informal arrangements without bills and other documentation. Through its failure to recognise and address this issue through the rehabilitations plan, the Haryana Government has rendered most of the residents ineligible. In the absence of any survey, a large number of families will be excluded from the scheme because of the identity card issue. Even in the eligible group, many will not be able to afford the initial deposit (refer to testimonies in the Annexure). Secondly, the rent that is required to find alternative accommodation till the EWS flats are ready is much more than the promised amount of Rs 2,000. Hence, in the rehabilitation scheme, most of the residents will be left behind and risk being rendered homeless.
[Note: This writeup appears as the chapter titled Forced Eviction in the Public Hearing Report – Link]